Thursday, 20 December 2012

Is there anyone any good out there?


I can recite a few tales of stunning individuals who arrive in our clan, with the old blood surging through their veins.  They give their all: their own time and expense in pursuit of a long-term career they were born to achieve.  They never question whether they are to be paid, or how much.  They give everything they have; and, hopefully, those who take them in through their doors honourably make sure they are not out-of-pocket.  Such people are bright, bright-eyed and identifiable within seconds.  They want to help.  They give before they ask to receive; and by that time, you’re already keen to lend a hand before they even have to ask – because you are desperate they should stay with your company for the rest of their lives.  They watch, they listen; and they soak up what they need to know effortlessly.  Because they are interested. To see their enthusiasm make me dewy-eyed. 

But am I alone in despairing, largely, of a generation? 

There are others  who write in to us, not really knowing my name.  They suggest they want a career in media, but are not entirely sure.  They talk of what their long-term aspirations are, forgetting that we all have rather a lot on our minds.  Some even forget who they’ve written to, and mention other radio stations in error along the way. They have ideas of their own talents way beyond their abilities; and demand we spend our time offering feedback.  I wish I had the courage of Cowell, and felt I could simply fire back an automated email suggesting that they’ll never make it – and they should really focus their energies on something else. Like singing, radio attracts so many who are convinced they can do it, but really cannot.  Great performers make it sound easy.
  
I recall one person we once took on for work experience who turned up at 1030 a.m.  When I gently suggested we turn up a little earlier , she explained she’d been out late so had only just got up.   I recall another journalist applicant who found it tough to suggest what key industry might exist in rural Lincolnshire, even when I asked her what she saw when she stared out the train window.

Syndicated emails sometimes plop into my Outlook from students asking me, effectively, to write their media exam answers for them.  I write back and ask them to formulate some genuine questions.  I rarely hear back.  And there are the eager mothers writing on behalf of their surly 17 year olds, asking for help in securing work experience or employment.  If I were a parent, I fear I’d stick my nose in and be just the same, but actually, the people we really want are the 17 year olds who have the initiative to get off their own backsides and quietly make their own overtures to us.

There are some great radio courses, run by people I respect deeply.  They are probably as frustrated as I am by the others in their field who appear out of touch.  Courses which specialise in talk radio, without a hint of education about the science of music radio, despite the fact that all but a handful of station amongst the UK’s many hundreds play, at least, some songs.  Instead, there are hours spent on coaching students how to build three-minute features on mice in windmills.  Even Radio 4 chooses only to play a ‘package’ on The Today Programme, when the line goes down and they get desperate.  Where is the coaching on how radio communicates; and how do you cajole a reluctant caller to going on-air and creating a truly astonishing piece of radio? Where is the coaching on language? Where is the coaching on business?  Are aspiring radio journalists coached sufficiently on how they sound? Do they step back to consider how much of their bulletin has been received – and remembered - by their audiences?  Judging by the robotic delivery we too frequently observe, maybe not.

I fear I may get political when I amplify my concerns that the UK spends billions on education, yet do we get a flood of quality applications when we advertise a job? Whether it be news, imaging, copy-writing/creative, social media, sales, manager, or software developer.  No.  Whilst we are often highly delighted with our eventual recruit who defies the trend, we do not always get the range of applicants we  expect  for such a truly great industry.  Why is it too that frighteningly intelligent people arrive, seemingly lacking the ability to write English to a decent standard.  I lacked the benefit of a university education, but whatever the nature of the Degree, should we not expect a vaguely acceptable standard of writing from one of the UK’s many graduates?  Not least because, increasingly and maybe perversely, radio demands that, with its ancillary online and social media channels.

The range of jobs in radio is often misunderstood.  Beyond ‘being a jock’ or ‘working in the newsroom’, the wealth of opportunity is ignored.  Which radio station would not bend over backwards to a bright personable, hard-working, persuasive individual, interested in radio, saying ‘I’d like a career in radio sales’?  Maybe it’s that old British thing which looks down on ‘sales’ as some dirty job.  That’s why this country invents great things and never quite extracts their value. ‘Sales’ is a dirty word at a dinner party.  We’ve all met bad salespeople in our general lives in all fields - and we’ve met truly great ones.  Is it just not 'British' to aspire to be UK radio’s best sales person?  Combine, also, sales with programming: devising and selling great promotions and sponsorship is a wonderful job; but where are the applicants in our email boxes for those positions from people with a self-evident flair? What of creative writers to write great persuasive and award-winning radio ads?  Where are they educating the next generation to tackle such skills?

Because we are such a fascinating, enjoyable industry, at least some applicants defy the above and shine through.  I wonder if that’s true of other industries.

Check my site at www.davidlloydradio.com



Saturday, 15 December 2012

Hello patients everywhere


Isn't it strange seeing people you haven't seen for thirty years? Not least when, with some folk, you feel able just to pick up where you left off. 

Last weekend, on that misty Saturday night, a throng of us congregated in the splendid surroundings of Nottingham's Wollaton Hall.  We'd last met at hospital radio: for many of us, that was decades ago.  Some of us had blagged our way into professional broadcasting; others had taken a more sensible course in life.

Routes into radio are as different as the people who work within it.  Some  drink up their experience from student radio, others simply apply for a transfer from being a showbiz name. In the mid '70s, commercial radio was fuelled by those from the biscuit factory radio, UBN.
A few individuals have been in radio so long they have forgotten quite how they got in; and others moan so much they really should look for the door marked exit.  
For many of my generation, hospital radio was a trunk road to a career in the medium.  Nottingham enjoyed a well-respected hospital radio station, launched in the 70s when even commercial radio had yet to begin in Robin's City.   

I was turned away from NHR's dusty, pre-fab building for being too young, but battled through, aged 16, to win my blue Dymo membership badge at last.  Nottingham Hospitals Radio was frighteningly well-managed, with a clear focus on its audience.  Like so many of that generation, it was in hospital radio that I learnt the rudiments.  Just maybe the number of professional stations across the UK is now so large that broadcasters can speed their way to huge FM transmitters without sufficient probationary benefit.

As so many in radio, I began on-air with a very high voice.  Thankfully, my first ever show on
17th December 1977 is lost on some crumbling 1/4" tape somewhere, although I do recall 'Underneath The Arches' from a warped Flanagan and Allen LP was my first song, which tells a little of how well-targeted the station genuinely was.  Mark Woodhouse tech-opped, which stood him in good stead for his own technical future. Cheers, Mark. Good to see you again. Anyone born at our station  knew about preparation, pre-fading and PPM levels.

Rather too many hospital stations appear to target their disc jockeys rather than their audience, which must be a little annoying for those who donate monies to keep the stations alive. Yes, hospital radio can have been a great training ground, but that is not the reason for its existence.  Ours had mandatory ward visiting  with summary execution for those who missed it more than once.  Wisely so.  My 93 year old dad's just out of hospital and, on boring days there, he would have killed to have someone stop by his bedside for a natter. It means more than you'll ever know. 

Smile here at a slice of audio from the late 70s days when commercial radio was being called upon to be more meaningful.  Accordingly, 'hospital radio link ups' were hurriedly organised; and I was duly asked by Trent if I'd supply some ward interviews.  Desperate  for a professional break, I duly obliged; and dragged a heavy Uher round disinfected wards. A generation will recall the Uher tape recorder, possibly by the affliction of a lop-sided walk in adult life, given it weighed as much as a large Christmas turkey.  I was despatched to the maternity wards and, as an shy, innocent youth,  learnt more there about the female body than I had hitherto.

In the studio, our equipment was sufficient.  Sonifex cart machines with a loud click played out our stolen poorly-edited jingles, armed with black AA2 carts, which our younger members dutifully re-laced with lubricated tape.  A few battered Ferrograph tape machines with an editing block nailed near the heads were reserved for editing; and a swish new Revox played out the evening's recorded shows.  Sig tunes for each show, which were compulsory given this was the 70s, were kept on 5" spools. Yellow leader at the front red at the rear. Turntables were slow to start, so each had a felt slip mat which one gripped until the required moment. Release the fingers; and lo, the Dooleys.

Early lessons were learned about the importance of vocabulary.  'Listeners' were referred to as just that on-air, never 'patients'.  The hope was that our pirated jingles and spotty, adolescent presenters playing The Old Rugged Cross meant that they might forget the major surgery the following day. 

We received a crash course on how radio is a one-to-one medium; not least because, on lucky days, we did indeed amass that single listener. Alas, too many on-air professionally nowadays forget the power of the singular 'you' and suggest that 'any of you  out there' keep your 'texts coming in'. It's a basic rule of radio broken by too many, too often.

...

Note the light switch (mic live light!)
An early duty for me was the programme for the long-stay geriatric hospitals. One popular feature within was the 'birthday list': "Hello Agnes, happy 93rd birthday. Here's George Formby - and the one entitled...". We'd run down the shiny tiled corridors to conduct a last minute check that all was well with dear Agnes's health just minutes before the show; on the pretext of delivering a branded Christmas card.

The Nottingham  station, run by the towering Barrie 'James' Pierpoint, was strong on PR.  Upon its birthday, a team of typists would compose neat letters on the Golf-ball typewriter to professional stations, requesting 'anniversary greetings'.  May I now concede that it was actually a ruse to get stereo copies of their jingles.  Now, though, those messages have become a lucky piece of radio history.

...


Friends, it was good to see you again. Including those who should have gone into radio but sadly didn't.  .

Saturday, 1 December 2012

And now - the Chemists' Rota

In cold and snowy times, kids everywhere turn on their radios in the hope of hearing the news that their school is closed for the day.  They needn't really, of course.  Most schools now have other ways of getting information to hundreds of parents efficiently.  Educational establishments and their parent local authorities have bulk SMS systems; and some have colourful websites or social media.  If these are serviced well (and some are not), then it might be argued radio need no longer play the role for which many of us fondly remember it, from our duffel coat and mitten days.
 
Mind you, that takes half the fun away.  Hearing one's school mentioned has became a ritual.  And radio stations quite enjoyed hearing  adolescents assuming deep voices as they pretended to be the Headmaster.
As the flooding of late 2012 hit, some stations responded in the time-honoured way.  Others did not.  Just maybe that's absolutely right.  Some stations are carving out a highly popular reputation as being purveyors of excellent music and entertainment; and they feel that dull lists of miserable information do  not merit a place on their format.   After all, just like with school closures, there are many other ways for listeners to get information; and even if radio is a useful solution for those on the move, there are usually other radio stations who have carved out their reputation, partially or wholly,  as being a local information portal.  I suspect it would take something of a major national catastrophe to prevent the Cartoon Channel from showing cartoons on TV. It's not what it does.

But, if you are going to broadcast a service for those battling with the snow, wind or rain, the World has moved on.  Yes, accurate information has a place, gilded usefully by  the station's online and social presences. But radio should be more than that.  Its real place now is not to serve as a shopping list; it is to be a friend, putting its arm round its tribe and helping each of them through.  Reassurance, sympathy and a few comforting words. A sense of 'we're all in this together'.  And the canniest of stations seize the opportunity to make dramatic listening from what is happening around them.  When inclement weather causes upset, stories follow; and that's what radio does best. 

Canny stations like that also realise that it's important to be on-air locally, even late at night.  Yes, the audiences are small and you need to keep your powder dry for the peak audiences next day, but for the stations which attach value to this reputation, even a single, local, friendly voice speaks volumes.  If I ran a BBC local station, I'd be disappointed if we could not manage it.  If I ran a successful often-networked CHR music-intensive station, I might just stay in bed.
Of course, in the days before the World-wide web, radio was usefully just about first with everything.  Before television; certainly before press; and marginally after the town-crier.  Even if significant detail were required, radio was still called upon, despite the medium not necessarily being the most suitable.  Hence, such popular features as the chemists' rota were aired.  After all, in the days when so few shops of any kind were open after 5.30, it was crucial to know exactly which pharmacy might be able to hand over an aspirin.  Broadcasts like this 1977 example were accordingly commonplace.

 
 The chemists' rota

Now the long lists of lost dogs and cats have largely gone walkies, just the Shipping Forecast and the Classified Pools Check live on as a memorial to this genre of broadcasting. Had the chemists' rota remained, that too might have been intoned in a similarly beautiful poetic rhythm.

Still in 2012, radio stations are relied upon.  We all know that.  Stations receive enquiries about the most bizarre of subjects. Listeners expect us to know the answers; and are grumpy if we do not.  From the opening times of a shop, to where a film can be seen; from the answer to a pub quiz to whether we know anything about a Grenadier Guards' reunion.  Every station will have stories of 'things our listeners have asked', and feel free to add a few below.  They trust us, and that's yet another symbol of the strength of our great medium.  So, in times of crisis, let's make sure that, at least, some radio stations respond in a way which makes most use of radio's strength as a friend.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

DJ In a Spin



Although few people own an alarm clock nowadays, it is compulsory to borrow a big one for the obligatory press shot when an excited new breakfast presenter joins a radio station.  They need to clutch it, perhaps point at it; and smile.  They must be in a studio, and headphones must be worn.  Not around the head, but draped daintily around the neck.  If they ask you to bring a cornflake packet, pyjamas or lie in a bed with your co-host, just say no. Say you've changed your mind about hosting the 'flagship show' after all.

When the local charity raises some sorely needed cash with the help of the station, make sure you hold one end of the large presentation cheque and point to the amount of the ‘boost’, grinning stupidly.  After all, you truly are ‘in tune’; and you have ‘hit the right note’.  Similarly, a station must be ‘rapped’ if it ‘hits the wrong note’.   

"DJ Mary Anne Hobbs is hitting the right note" (Manchester Evening News March 2013"

As for understanding audience figures, it is obligatory for press to fail to grasp the intricacies of Rajar; and the fact that if a station loses a couple of thousand listeners it might, in reality, have done better than last time.  Mind you, that would confuse me too; and the press must get pretty sick of us all being ‘delighted’.

New presenters never leave one station for another. Oh no, they are ‘poached’.  If they are not poached they are ‘axed’. Probably by ‘station chiefs’.  Both sound painful. When life gets really tough for a 'motormouth' or 'bonkers' DJ, then it’s just got to be a case of ‘DJ in a spin’.  Even if you've 'scooped' an award, which will doubtless be a 'Radio Oscar', whatever it is.

Be sure to let the press know the name of your station. Without knowing the correct answer, there’s a risk they might accidentally get it right. Tell them the correct answer, and they can avoid it. They’ll use ‘FM’ where you have ‘radio’; and vice versa. If you have a brand and no suffix they’ll dream one up for you. It’ll naturally be one which has never been on ‘the airwaves’.  Those lovely airwaves.  Does that word ever appear anywhere in real life apart from a newspaper? 

Mind you, at least they have mentioned your brand.  Some forget you have a name and all your efforts are simply attributed to ‘a radio station’.  Mind you, if those efforts result in any manner of crisis, your name will suddenly be recalled.

Since first writing this blog, I was amused to read coverage of the end of  the redoubtable award-winning 'Beryl and Betty' on BBC Radio Humberside.  The Daily Mail duly informed us that the pair planned to 'hang up their mics'.  Just like we all do at the end of our shows. What?  Headphones, I guess, can be hung up, and that alliterates usefully too.  But hanging up a mic?



Thank goodness we, in radio, are immune from clich├ęs on-air. I’d hate to get the green light for that sort of behaviour.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Don't Forget to Join me. The Art of Radio Imaging Production

Don't you just love the language in radio promos.  "Don't forget to join us".  Just like telling listeners not to think of an elephant, telling them not to forget is a sure-fire instruction to suggest they do exactly that.

'Why not join me?' OK, I won't. 

Thankfully, we've largely got away from those 'I'll be here with X, Y, Z and the very best in music" type scripts, but  gifted writing for radio imaging and general production is a rare skill. 

Many producers appear to spend many hours locked in their darkened studio doing the sexy, macho bits, fiddling with Pro Tools and cranking up the speakers loud.  Just maybe they spend a little less time with the fluffy bits: chewing the end of a pen and poring over the script.  The choice of words is the single most important element of any production.  Some words are so much more evocative than others: warmer, brighter, colder, funnier.  A comedian will wrestle over every syllable.  'You' is a powerful word.  Make sure the killer words are in the right place.  The rhythm is important.  Often it's the words you strike out that lend so much more meaning to the remainder.  Type it out, then hack it apart.  Leave it to stew, then come back and polish it again.

Brevity is powerful. 

Often a great script is made even greater by sacrificing the first three lines you wrote.  Just like in real life, and indeed just like the start of a great live jock link on-air, you do not always need to set things up nor start at the beginning.  Books jump in feet first in the opening words on Chapter One:  'I didn't mean to kill him. The knife slipped'.  So do Tweets.  Grab me.  Paint vivid pictures in my mind.  Not too many pictures, though: beware of creating those long scenarios followed by a riposte which sells the opposite.  Ask yourself if it really works?  Or was one of the journeys needless?

And detail.  Oh, the detail.  If your enthusiastic programmer has breathlessly planned a great, yet complicated, Holiday Monday of Summer songs, it's not essential to inform me that they are all songs which hit number 1,2 or 3 between the months of June and August over the last twenty years; and that you're playing three an hour at 20 past, twenty to and on the hour. Just tell me this weekend the music will make them feel it's a Summer's Day.  Give me the results, not the mechanics.  Great car ads on TV picture the owner driving with the roof down, speeding  through the greenest countryside on the warmest day.  You imagine the car impressing your friends; and how you'd feel driving it.  A canny brand would rarely devote huge amounts of media spend in communicating the exact spec of the car.  Sell the dream.  Tell me the listener benefit, not how complicated it is to enjoy it.  Look out the window into real life for inspiration. Get out the studio and go for a walk and visualise what you're really trying to commmunicate in the real world.

For competitions, sell me the prize and make me want it - and tell me the next step for me to win it.  Don't explain the whole mechanic.  Frankly, it's even a little too much to ask me to 'find out more', as that sounds like hoops are on the way.  Why should I bother?  I'm busy.  Don't say 'if', say 'when'.

Don't get me started about 'register online'.  Where did that phrase come from?  Yes, you may not emerge as a winner when you go on line to complete your details, but the same was true when you phoned in for contests.  You don't register to play the Lottery - you play it.   "Enter now/win now at (website)" or similar makes me feel closer to victory, and avoids that that lovely  council/school-sounding verb 'register'.

Traditional radio thinking suggests you should use the same VO for everything.  It's all about station sound, a cohesive identity and all that jolly stuff.  There's probably something in that thinking, but should we always be bound by it?  We all know that despite our best efforts, many listeners could not name many music radio presenters or recognise their voices.  I always smile at clients who spend a fortune on a big name in their radio and TV ads, whose voice is actually not recognisable by most listeners.  I suspect few listeners would actually know whether or not your regular voice-over was being used on your promo or not.  What matters is, does it do the job? For some purposes,  a different  sort of voice can add a wealth of added value.  Oh, and unless your colleagues are really good at acting, don't ask them to put on silly voices.

In production, do the music, FX  and VO tracks work in harmony as one beautiful symphony? Or are they fighting?  Those lovely promos where a measured vox pop sits uneasily across a bed moving at a thousand miles an hour means you notice neither the bed nor the words.  They should work emotionally as one.  Just like those annoying jocks who like using a music VO bed for no real reason: a vibrant music bed does not make a poor link better. Research from neoroscientists suggests that incongruent sounds really mess things up.

Your masterpiece will be aired whilst a mother is stuffing dinner money in the hands of one child whilst telling off another.  On the delivery and in the mix, can a listener hear the words sufficiently clearly whilst doing something else in their busy lives?  You know what's been said, given you wrote it, but can a listener hear every single word first time? Sometimes a simple piece of work for some purposes is just fine. Listen critically.  And ask yourself whether the delivery is natural, believable and persuasive, or is the VO just dragging out the words for no apparent reason, sounding like an infant school teacher talking to a class of nine year olds. 

Remember too, when this is aired, it will be one person - the VO - talking to another - the listener.  In pacing and scripting, have you allowed time and space for the listener to soak up what's said and respond emotionally.  Enough time to think, smile, shiver, salivate, desire?  And if you asking your VO to act, just check they can.

I don't have too many favourite consultants, but one I do respect once said to me 'British breakfast promos are shit'.  Although it was a generalisation, and I know my own current team have certainly done some simple yet powerful work in getting the characters of the breakfast teams across, I think you and I know what he meant.  Clips sometimes work.  Often, they don't.  Don't air the ones which don't.  It's tough to suck a winning twenty seconds out of even the finest long breakfast link in a way which works in isolation.  If your goal is to communicate that 'this is a funny show', make sure that message is clear to the person who's never heard the show.  Hearing three people you don't know shouting nonsense and laughing loudly is the corner of the bar you would not go and join.  As for 'join us at 6', nope, I won't be awake. And 'on breakfast tomorrow'? Listeners eat breakfast, they do not sit on it.

I'm puzzled.  In BBC local radio or any high-talk environment, why they make so much use of promos, or 'trailers'?  You create the most incredibly powerful attentive environment with what you do within your programming, and then wander off for 30" for no reason.  You create 'ad breaks' where you do not need to.  Try instead seizing the 70" clip of audio from something you've got coming up or went before, with the presenter your listeners trust wrapping round and lending their live endorsement.   On LBC this week, when James Max talked live about how Nick Ferrari had taken a 94 year old veteran on a surprise visit to see the PM at Number Ten, I came home and went online to hear the earlier clip.  Consider the power of the relationship your presenters have built with their audiences.  They are a friend; and a personal recommendation from a  friend is persuasive. 

What do you want the listener to know, feel or do when they hear your material?  Know that - and satisfy yourself that the material meets that end, and you'll probably win some listening and some awards.



Sunday, 23 September 2012

Ninety years of in-car listening



George was 18; and he loved his car.  Well, it was a Model T Ford and not many blokes his age had one, given it was May 1922. 

The car was probably good for his courting too, not least because he was a member of the High Lane School Radio Club in Chicago.  Just maybe he needed some extra credentials.

The one thing wrong with his wagon is that he couldn’t carry on listening to the radio, whilst he was cruising down the American highway.  So, this enterprising lad swiftly bolted a radio into the passenger door, complemented by a high-impedance cone loudspeaker.  It was clearly a good idea, and, frankly, the only way one could enjoy the sounds of Al Jolson as the wind blew through one's hair at 30 mph. 

Commercial car radios swiftly followed, with the first mass-produced model on the market in 1927: the Transitone TH-One.  Then, in 1930, Paul and Joseph Galvin created the 5T71, under the now familiar brand-name  ‘Motorola’, on sale at $130. It took off, after being demonstrated at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers' Association Convention.  Here in the UK, a Daimler Light 30 car was said to be the first to benefit from an eight-valve receiver in November 1922. It was chosen for the Marconiphone experiment, as Daimlers were nice quiet cars.  Still are, I guess.  Those glowing valves were eventually retired, in favour of transistors.

Blaupunkt then led the way, who also installed the first FM set, albeit there were few FM stations to listen to. Ah well.

Licensing was required, but of course. In the early days, when the current TV (including radio) licence was, itself just a radio licence, it did not extend to in-car listening. A separate piece of paper was accordingly required.  Some people even suggested in-car listening should be prohibited completely, fearing the distractions Jeremy Vine might provide.

Stereo arrived in 1969.

Right into the 80s, AM-only radios were still common.  FMs were as rare as DAB sets are now.  If you were lucky, you had AM pre-set buttons, otherwise it was a case of twiddling down the top end to find Radio Luxembourg on 208 as you drove back from the coast.  Very lucky drivers even had a tone control.  The aerial rose proudly erect from the bonnet.  More frequently, it was broken off, but we all knew a bent wire coat-hanger would do the trick.



Once radios became commonplace, it was natural to try other audio devices.  Experiments ensued with reel-to-reel tape players, and even record players, such as the so called ‘in-dash turntable’. Just imagine that. I suspect it made for careful Sunday drivers, bunging on a nice KTel compilation as they cruised down the A52.

Tape was clearly a better mobile medium than an LP – and the battle for vehicle supremacy raged between the Cassette and the Cartridge player.  Cassette players were great things, pioneered by Phillips in 1964, and first installed in cars from about 1970.   A great 1975 press ad for a Philips in-air radio/cassette player suggested it was ‘bristling with advanced features’ as it could make ‘monaural recordings’ from a ‘specially developed microphone’. Frightening.

You fed cassette players with brand name cassettes; or risked a cheaper C90 from your local supermarket.  C120s, sadly, were destined to get snarled up halfway through Y Viva Espana.  One could, with patience, repair them by using a special kit. 

8 track cartridges were fun too: bulky, masculine things, first introduced by Ford and Motorola in 1965. You could just about hear some of the other tracks leaking through in the gaps between the songs. The bottom soon fell out of the 8 track market, though,  with cassettes overtaking them in popularity by 1977.  The luckiest cartridges ended their lives piled up in car boot sales.

All these cunning products were all too often not line-fitted at the point of manufacture.  Holes were accordingly hacked in dashboards; and many a lad spent his Sunday on the front drive with a roll of green insulation tape and some bits of wire, determined to fit a shiny new audio device into his baby.  And, given these were removed far more easily than they were installed, the local scallies found them an easy and lucrative target.  

The early 80s saw the arrival of the CD player.  I recall a chap with spectacles from Philips bringing one into Radio Trent and we aired a 10cc track from the flash new silver device.  But it wasn’t until about 84 that they started to appear in cars; and some time before they began to enjoy the wonderful carousels we could arm with our whole set of Now compilations.

Now, if you're lucky, or if you ask the nice man in a blue blazer politely and haggle at purchase, you get a fab DAB radio in your vehicle.  Albeit with potentially puzzling instructions like 'scan all multiplexes'.   For the future, no doubt there'll be other flash ways of summoning up what will necessarily always be audio entertainment.  Voice control is probably a must - and I'd love Siri to be able to change stations and volume for  me.  In spite of all that has changed thus far, however, after nearly 100 years, radio still accounts for a vast proportion of mobile entertainment. I suspect it always will.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The friendly Leicester Sound

Bros were really keen to see themselves on 'Pebble Mill at One'.  It was to be the boyband's first TV performance and they didn't want to miss it just because they were on the road doing a radio interview.  All very well, but, sadly, Leicester Sound did not have a TV set.  I ran back to my flat nearby to grab a heavy portable set; and returned breathlessly just in time to twist the wire aerial to get a fuzzy picture of their three young, smiling faces. 

Just another lively day in the rich life of Leicester Sound.  The station was always going to be a challenge. It rose from the detritus of Centre Radio, the first commercial radio ‘failure’ which closed abruptly after just two years, amidst financial difficulties.  When neighouring Radio Trent’s offer to keep Centre on life-support was turned down, the station died and its legacy handed over to the liquidators.  The hopes of Trent’s immediate rescue had been sufficiently high for a package of jingles to be recorded hurriedly at Alfasound.

Process kicked in; and the then regulator, the IBA, re-advertised the Leicester franchise.  Trent, meanwhile, bought the premises, thinking it would either launch the station at a later stage under its new franchise; or sell it on to a rival franchise-winner.  It was a nice asset – an 1876 stately home on the edge of Victoria Park, boasting stained glass windows, beautiful stone fireplaces and an underground cavern equipped with a generator large enough to power Loughborough.

Norman, Ron & Chris
Leicester Sound was awarded the franchise, one of the first times ever the IBA had awarded a second franchise to a related company.  The Trent management team, headed by Ron Coles as MD, with Chris Hughes as programme director and Norman Mabe in the sales director's chair, prepared to gear the business back into action.

I recall travelling to Leicester just after the decision, armed
with the Granville House keys for a Marie Celeste moment.  Anoraks will appreciate what it’s like to click on the light switch in a studio which had fallen silent abruptly one year before.  A half-empty plastic coffee-cup; the final weather forecast; and a defiant red biro doodle lying on the black, scratched MBI mixing desk.

The Leicester on-air team was recruited by the Trent programming management: Nick Murden; Guy Morris; Tony Lyman; and Andy Marriott, all poised to broadcast live for 12 hours a day.  Graham Neale’s rock show, specialist music programmes and the late show with Erica Hughes or Chris Burns filled the remaining hours, piped from Nottingham.  They resided in the roomy presenters' office, replete with coving, which was typically an atrocious mess, strewn with cardboard 7" single covers addressed to ex-jocks and decorated just by a model of Thunderbird 2 dangling from the high ceiling adjacent to Marrow's desk.  

Marrow claimed he sensed a ghost on the stairs next to the the beautiful stained glass windows.  Not only a radio station, it was said, had died tragically in this lovely building.  

The newsroom was housed across the corridor in a draughty conservatory, with the compulsory aged car stickers peeling off the cracked window panes. Newsroom staff through the years included great voices like Julie Langtry-Langton (now with BBC Leeds); Jackie Leonard (BBC World Service); and Sybil Ruscoe (later Radio 1 and 2).  Character was supplied by the likes of the gentlemanly news editor, Peter Butler. Meanwhile, talented sports journalist, Keith Daniel would hammer out the sports scripts on a battered typewriter, whilst the religious team, Ian and Suzanne would bicker in the corner.

On September 1984, the station launched and, at last, those Alfasound jingles were belatedly aired from their blue AA3 carts with pretty labels.  My only duties back then were assisting from afar at  Trent, making many of the Leicester promos, by invitation. My earnest efforts with copying, vari-speeding and phasing on 10.5 inch spools was not called 'imaging' back then.

The station launched cautiously, as suggested by its geometric logo, in corporation green set in anemic caramel. That was best displayed on the radio car, a lop-sided, converted Cortina with questionable suspension and a retractable mast as high as Droitwich.  The vehicle and the studios overall were duly maintained by the station's committed engineers Bob, Denis or Pete, who lived in the station's engineering workshop from which the delicious smell of flux would waft.

Guy Morris
My dad once said that if you can sell something in Leicester, you can sell it anywhere.  These were testing times still for commercial radio generally, and Centre’s failure did not help the determined souls selling airtime spots.  Leicester Sound boasted a characterful team, including the woman who once threw a glass of wine over me. 

The commercial team was headed by moustached Tim Rogers in the early days, then Barrie in his suave grey suit. Both sought to climb the necessary hill to persuade the cynical burghers of Leicester to invest their monies in radio spots. The other option was 'co-funding': a cunning early form of sponsorship which enabled us to attach brands to certain programme features.  As it transpired, Cavendish Finance and Barry Wardle's Motorama added their name to just about anything that moved, or at least anything which had not already got a Leicester Co-Op 10" solus ad attached.  Tim also hosted the Country show on the station, back in the days when evening specialist music programmes were commonplace, and he quickly deduced correctly that if he secured a lucrative sponsorship for his own programme, it would remain on the schedule ad infinitum.

The station was always in the shadow of its big brother, Trent, which powered in as an audience and advertising competitor.   I recall it once being suggested, probably accurately, we were making more money from renting out some car parking spaces and running the Coke machine than the radio business was making.  As James Cridland will recall, for he was an early student, Leicester Sound also frantically launched a training school, where young disc jockeys were coached in which colour leader tape to use.  Under Heather Purdey's beady eye, corporate training was also on sale, and I recall sitting in the derelict Studio 4 pretending to be a police officer at the end of the line as we coached Leicestershire Constabulary on how not to proceed in a 'Northerly direction' when searching for an 'assailant'.

Chris Hughes
I cringe at memories of my arrival there as a young manager in 1987. Maturing from a brief ‘awkward jock’ phase into someone who wanted to do more, I’d been despatched to 'bleeding' Leicester Sound, as it was often dubbed at Trent, as Deputy Programme Controller.  I’d made a case that the station would benefit from more attention; so I was to be the day-to-day man on the ground.  The station’s nominal Programme Controller, Chris Hughes, wisely left me to it and his visits to the station  - and to the Happy Eater en route  - became increasingly rare.  I was poorly-equipped for the challenge ahead of handling those who were on the air when I was growing up. One learns quickly. May I apologise here for everything.

Wendy Staples and me
Anyone who talks now about Leicester Sound will smile and utter one name within the first minute of reminiscences.  Wendy.  Wendy on reception.  Every great station needs a Wendy: an individual who instinctively unites the building, whatever their title.  Despite being a highly-skilled role, it pays little and there is no interview process. Wendy was a stunning receptionist, who realised her job was to satisfy listeners, not to answer phones.  She also knew everything and everybody. She listened; and said the right things to the right people to ensure the most positive outcomes.  She defended vacillating management decisions with serial professionalism and loyalty; and supported managers less able then she was.  She both looked after 'her boys'; and told them off.  People both hugged her and cried on her shoulder. She danced to the Bee Gees as you played them; and made the sort of encouraging faces through the glass which every presenter needs to see when they are on-air.  She understood.

Wendy lived like a princess in the most beautiful reception ever: high ceilings, a huge fireplace and cartoons dangling from the mahogany picture rail. Large leather sofas reclined in the corners, so comfortable that one programme guest once notably fell asleep. Being just a few paces down the beautiful New Walk from town, Leicester Sound reception became a haven for all sorts of Leicester oddities who would call in for tea and sympathy and to stare into the studio or at the logging tapes go round in their glass display cupboard.  

The green baize studios were wisely locked away in what had been the stable block; really unfortunate if you popped out during a show and forgot your key. Step forward, Erica Hughes.

On-air, the station was fun. The imagination and freedom of the early '80s was evolving into a slightly more considered approach. Mind you, we still all picked our own oldies from the huge walls of vinyl in 'Bubbles Goodbody's' (Di Harris) record library, and the new CD albums we played rather depended which ones St Martin’s HiFi had lent us. Playing something 'off CD' was a major event and thoroughly trumpeted on-air.  Leicester's own, inimitable  Kenny Hague became a regular and much-loved feature of the line-up, and new talent like Wigston lad, Mark Hayman and David Manning were recruited to the ranks.  Guy Morris ploughed on, like the focused professional he is to this day, distracted only by the many calls he took for his other businesses on the studio ex-D line during his segues.  


From the outset, there was worry that we were being confused with the hugely successful, and first ever, BBC local station.  We experimented, puzzlingly in retrospect, with declaring that we were 'the commercial sound of Leicestershire' and 'after the break radio'.   Then, we discarded the element we had in common in our names: Leicester.  Hence, the name 'Sound FM' was born.  Not the greatest of names, but the thought was there.  

The station had launched on 97.1 FM, moving to the better 103.2 and then eventually in 1997 to the powerful 105.4, where only London's Melody Radio prevented it being heard in Surrey.  
The Sabras tea
Leicester Sound inherited from Centre Radio a hugely popular AM Asian programme stream, called Sabras (all tastes), run by the impressive Don Kotak. On Leicester Sound, these hugely popular evening programmes expanded into a full night-time station.  Within the building, this dedicated team became part of the station's rich character, from Didar's wonderful curries to rather large overseas phone bills.  I was called upon by the hard-working Asian commercial producer to voice ads for '30% off all saris, Belgrave Road, Leicester', which would be liberally spiced with tape echo.  Anwar worked literally through the night at busy times and was always puzzled with English work patterns: 'why do you work 9-5 when there's nothing to do, and yet go home at 5 when you're busy?'.  He had a fair point.  

Don't ask me about the Health & Safety nightmare when a Bollywood star arrived: it was like JLS popping in and I still go cold when I realise how close to catastrophe we got.  I had alerted PC Plod beforehand, who turned up when it was all over.  And there were the jingles too: I recall sitting in rainy Manchester with Alfasound vocalists, Steve and Ian, paired with a chap banging Tabla and some great Hindi vocalists, all singing in unison over 1960s PAMS tracks.  I think Len Groat was feeling in a polite mood when he heard the results.

Me on LS Airshow Radio 1494
The Careline was fun.  Wise daily words about toy appeals, venereal disease or the inter-denominational Winter tree. One never quite knew what would follow the accapella. The Careline team was a fascinating group of folk too: I recall there was once some sort of military coup amongst the troops, connected with Careline operation and management.  Whilst on-air, I had to put on my management hat half-way through a long song and dash out to the opposite pavement of London Road where rival factions were arguing angrily over who should have custody of the desks.

Kenny Hague
They invented a new title for me of 'General Manager'.  I inherited the sort of office you dream of: a heavy mahogany door with golden handles and enough room inside for a rave.  And I inherited the lovely Gill as my PA who initially frightened me, back in the days when one needed a two week course to use the new word processor. Post-It notes on Gill's door warned us not to disturb her during 'petty cash Fridays'.   

I presumed I was still also Deputy Programme Controller rather than Programme Controller, until Chris Hughes wandered into my office one day and we debated, per chance, who did what. ‘I thought you were Programme Controller’, muttered Chris. Hence I became PC.  

An early duty had been to attend to the difficult issue of the breakfast show presenter who was arriving a little late rather too often. Having been tipped off, I arrived at the crack of dawn just to witness things for myself.  As 6.00 came and went, Nick failed to arrive and I duly cranked up the station myself.  When he eventually arrived, looking more than a little crestfallen to see me in the chair, I sent him home.  Alas, Nick's life was to end prematurely, at the age of 30, a few months afterwards.  Sadly, far too many complicated radio lives end far too soon. Three of those in the launch presenters' shot at the head of this article are not around to muse on this 30th anniversary. This can be a job and an industry of enormous highs and lows. The station's first voice is remembered with huge fondness to this day by former colleagues and many listeners.

They were funny old days. Marketing departments did not exist. So, it was left to me to wait for the stage to arrive at a rainy Abbey Park and help to unroll the tent. Then, putting on silky jacket, standing on a stage for three hours talking to three men and a dog; one of whom turned up at every single event we ever did. He clutched a branded carrier bag of unknown contents.  

Like many stations, Leicester Sound boasted an impressive array of merchandising, from  the usual T shirts and mugs to branded cuddly teddy bears and a selection of boxer shorts.  Given there were male and female versions of this attractive logoed underwear, it was Wendy's job on reception to ensure that those who needed a pair with a useful opening received just that.
The station took its place in the fabric of the City, and rallied round in times of crisis. One terrible Winter, I recall a Sunday where Mark Hayman and I launched emergency programming with non-stop information on power cuts and road closures, and that double-header continued for eight hours, barging right through the Pepsi Chart.  One valiant chap parked his car just outside and slid up the path to bang on the reception door, only to ask for a wire coat hanger with which he could fashion a makeshift aerial for his car.  Back then, it seemed, you just couldn't live without radio.

Leicester Sound was one of the first stations in the country to put its AM and FM frequencies to different uses rather than simulcasting the entire output; and it formed one of the six stations in the IBA's 1986 experiment.  Evening Asian programming had been the first tentative venture, before AM was peeled off completely to form GEM AM in October 1988.  This was to be the UK's first completely separate 24 hour AM service.  MD Ron, wearing yellow trousers on the day, demanded that the station launch with an Olympics-inspired regional run round its three counties.  The stunt began outside Leicester Sound at the crack of dawn, with inserts live into the Leicester, Nottingham and Derby breakfast shows.  The success of Sabras, however, meant that, in time, Leicester's AM frequency, 1260 kHz was later to be pulled away from GEM to be allocated to Asian programming full time.

Ron Coles & Miss Leic Sound!
Times were tough in those days for a host of reasons. Eventually, in a cost-saving round, I was asked to share evening drive programmes with Trent at a time when I was ill-positioned to stamp my feet and say no. Hearing on my Leicester station that it was 'busy' on Nottingham's Maid Marian Way was annoying, to say the least, when we were seeking to carve out a reputation as 'Leicester's station'.  Those who tut at today's regionalisation easily forget the quiet economy measures of that era.  I also recall the occasion when all four Midlands Radio stations were each asked to make two redundancies.  Such a reduction cut proportionately harder in Leicester than in the mega Birmingham operation; and I cringe when I look back at implementing my first ever round of painful redundancies.  Not least as one post just saved the grand sum of £8,000.

In the end, after the East and West Midlands stations merged to form the Midlands Radio Group in 1992, then one of the biggest radio groups in the UK, this was the one job that became too much. The on-air daily shows combined with the off-air programme, marketing and general management hassle, amidst the the frustration of the birth pangs of a radio group, took me to the brink.  As I drove to yet another Midlands Radio Group meeting at Mercia, I missed my turning on the ring-road and got lost in Coventry. The straw duly broke the camel’s back, and I resigned in tears on arrival.  Ron offered me a prawn sandwich to calm me down, but to no avail.  I handed back my lovely Nissan 200SX and resigned with no job to go to.

We had a lot of interesting folk through the doors of the Great House, including our fair share of work experience folk.  Dashing student, Keri Jones, now Radio Scilly supremo, quickly became an expert at packing the 'whizz box', the daily package despatched by bike to Trent.  I also recall one particularly annoying dark-haired spotty teenager who really got in the way, to the extent I suggested that Kenny Hague sent him away.  The lad returned, determined, a few months later, by which time he'd emerged into someone
Mike Cass
alarmingly indispensable. Called Mike Cass.


So ended four years at Leicester Sound. On reflection, great memories, as for so many others.  Certainly a huge learning experience.  Every radio group has a 'challenging station' which struggles for no explicable reason, and they often push some of their best people inside it, in a valiant effort to make progress. The Leicester Sound Hall of Fame is impressive. 

I do recall the closest we got to audience success in those early days, when the company reached 40% reach overall (29% for Leicester Sound FM and 19% GEM AM/Sabras), which prompted the commissioning of a pricey celebratory spread in the Leicester Mercury.


Reunion at new premises: (l-r)Tim;Paul;Di;Wendy;David;Andy. Guy (back)
The Leicester Sound memorial is maybe its home, Granville House: largely impractical but utterly beautiful.  Later, hurriedly converted into net-curtained flats. On a recent daytrip, as we paused to take a photo outside, the new inhabitants waved through the ‘boardroom’ window. I suspect I was not the only one who’d returned to take that same fond shot– and I guess the new residents had been treated already to tales of, well , all the above. And more.

I aspired to return to Leicester in 1994, when Lincs FM (as 'Jupiter Radio') applied for the Leicester licence upon its re-advertisement.  Few commercial radio incumbent licensees were challenged across the UK, and even fewer were displaced (LBC, Victory, Devonair). At the time of the Leicester re-advertisement, however, good old Leicester Sound did look a little sorrowful, with its FM audience figures suggesting a 25-44 adult reach of 16%, and female adult reach at 14% (Rajar Q2.93).  Notwithstanding methodology changes, Capital in the larger East Midlands TSA now enjoys a 29% 25-44 reach, in the face of two FM local competitors and reinvigorated BBC music radio on FM.  
Julie Langtry-Langton from News in Studio 2

For the Jupiter team, the application was sadly not to be successful, although I gather we were close to seizing the crown.  GWR had just assumed ownership of the station at the time from Capital (as Capital shed its Midlands acquisitions apart from BRMB in January 1994, a year after it had acquired them), and fuelled by the canny return of Ron Coles with his talented quill with which he'd penned so many successful licence applications, the new team retained the FM licence. The AM licence, which had been, by then, sub-contracted to Sunrise Radio, was given deservedly to the Sabras team which launched its own dedicated operation, on-air to this day from a fine old church building on Melton Road.

GWR was to merge with Capital to become GCap in 2005; and GCap was acquired by Global in 2008. The future could have been different had the Piccadilly acquisition of the Midlands stations, including Leicester Sound, in 1988 succeeded, or had the Radio Authority not blocked the DMG Radio acquisition of Leicester Sound alone in 1997. Or had Jupiter won.

Leicester Sound moved from Granville House into more sensible premises on July 30th 2002, with Steve Jordan uttering the last words from the battered studios.  The station then continued until the back end of 2010, when its old name gradually faded out, ready for its 'merging' with Trent (Nottingham) and Ram (Derby) to form Capital (East Midlands) which blasted on-air from Nottingham on 3rd January 2011.

A dose of Trent memories here - and Leic Sound Listener and now broadcaster, Simon Parry's own tribute site here.


My book 'Radio Moments' tells of the Leicester Sound Years - and all that came before and after.


The original Leic Sound sales team, fronted by Tim Rogers
Launch on-air team
Andy, Guy, Nick & Tony

Caroline & Wendy; and Paul Robey


Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio', available from Biteback